Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa

Vol. 8, No. 1, 2006

Scholastic Achievement and the
Diglossic Situation in a Sample of
Primary-School Students in Ceuta

José María Roa Venegas

Instituto de Estudios Ceutíes
Universidad de Granada

Campus de Cartuja s/n 18071
Granada, España

(Received: July 29, 2004; accepted for publishing: March 3, 2006)



In this paper we have tried to compare, in a sample of Spanish first and second-grade students whose mother tongue is Dhariya, with those of other students of the same level, but whose mother tongue is Spanish, the achievement levels in some functions and skills related to the maturity needed for learning at school. The results showed significant differences between subjects speaking the different vernaculars as a first language. Dhariya-speaking students obtained lower scores on skills such as visual-auditory, memory, elemental concepts and language dysfunctions. We can reasonable assume the importance which conceptual development, so strongly associated with the mastery of the language used, could have on the student’s scholastic achievement.

Key words: multiculturalism, bilingualism, scholastic achievement.



In the Spanish city of Ceuta, due to its geographical and historical situation, various different cultures (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu) are living together. This multiculturalism enriches its people and allows them to grow in diversity. However, there are many and complex difficulties, among which one of the most outstanding is that of language, as this is an element of social integration and coexistence.

The European-Christian populace, Spanish in origin, is still in the majority at this time. It represents 51% of the inhabitants, where until 1970 it constituted 92%, and has defining traits not differing from the rest of the Spanish or European community. The remaining 49% of the population is composed of Arab-Muslim communities (48.40%), Jewish-Hebrew (0.25%), Hindu-Brahman (0.25%) and Gypsy-Christian (0.10%) (Ramírez, 1996).

The Arab-Muslim population makes up what we would call the largest minority, reported to be around 43,000 inhabitants, although really there are just under 30,000. Their main identifying features are: Moroccan origin with a high level of illiteracy (39%)—especially among the older generation; birth rate of 4.4 children per family; low socioeconomic and cultural status; high unemployment rate (above all among the youth); incomes below 600 euros a month in 45% of the population; serious problems with enculturation and bilingualism (integration by communication); and an extremely strong presence of their religion, Islam, in their life (Herrera, 2000).

Language is the instrument par excellence through which we communicate and transmit our cultural heritage from generation to generation. Language being important for any society, let us consider the relevance it will assume for those disadvantaged minorities who for various reasons find themselves obliged to acquire a different culture with a different language as a tool for the attainment of that culture.

In Ceuta there exists a situation of bilingualism. In an attempt to define the term bilingualism, we can say that is the direct, active and passive employment of two languages with the same competency, by the same speaker. According to Siguán (1986), a bilingual person is one who in addition to her first language, has a similar competency in another language, and is able to use one or the other in whatever circumstances with similar effectiveness.

The Ceuta Muslims, whose mother tongue in familiam is a dialect of Arabic, are forced to study Castilian as the only language spoken in school, from the time they enter kindergarten until the end of whatever educational level they reach. These children are immersed in a linguistic setting practically unknown to them, and the difficulty is aggravated by the fact that since they come from humble cultural environments, their linguistic competency is low. This being the case, there is a subtractive bilingual situation, in which the difference in between the language spoken at home and that spoken at school has more negative consequences than positive ones (Aguado, 1992).

The bilingualism of the Ceuta Muslims is what in linguistic terms is called diglossic. According to Siguan (1986), diglossia refers to the coexistence of two languages, with an imbalance in favor of one of them, the strongest—in this case, Spanish. The weak language, the mother tongue, is a variant of Chelja, an oral Berber dialect with no standardized linguistic rules. It is called Dhariya (spoken in North Morocco, Yebbala: Tetouan, Tangiers, Larache, etc.), although some people confuse it with other variants of Chelja, such as Sus or Susi, typical of the south (Agadir, Marrakech, etc.); Yaian, from the Atlas area; or Tamazirth, from the Rif area, near Melilla.

Albó (1998) says that diglossia occurs when, in a bilingual or multilingual social environment, there is no equity in the use of one or the other language. One, the more prestigious, is spoken mainly by the dominant groups, and the other by subordinate groups. As a result, there are also diglossic situations one language or the other prevails, in line with its particular relation to the power structure within the society in general.

This phenomenon called diglossia, according to the Dictionary of Education Sciences (1983), recapitulates the situation where two languages coexist with different levels of social prestige, so that one is used by institutions, the church, the school; it is the one considered to be cultured, while the other is only for use at home and at work, and in some cases is despised as uneducated. A consequence of this phenomenon is the creation of integration problems for the pupil in school, when he understands the clear distinction between the areas in which each language is used, with all the cultural baggage of the hidden curriculum it brings with it.

Language is used by people to communicate—to convey thoughts, feelings, ideas, ideologies, discoveries. It is used, above all, as an element in thinking. It assumes a way of understanding life, of capturing what we see and hear. Thanks to language, societies progress and advances are transmitted. In short, language, in the existence of a person, represents a medium for life.

According to this brief argument, if we put a young child into a different place away from her family, with strangers, with the well-known trauma of maternal abandonment, and to this we add a different language and a different way of speaking, the confrontation with the school is final, and is for the rest of her life. Two worlds having a clear affective influence on the pupil are separated unmistakably and forever: the family, and the place where she relates with her friends and her teachers.

In concurrence with Moraleda (1987), we can add that children from culturally-disadvantaged households (such as those of Ceuta’s Muslim minority), on the one hand present a number of problems in mastering the language; this places them at great disadvantage as compared with children from more culturally-advanced homes, especially in cognitive use. On the other, there is a relationship between low verbal performance and low achievement in learning, as well as in the factors considered to be a basis for scholastic failure.

Finally, we must take into account the fact that the difficulties in starting to school lie not only in a linguistic difference, but in a different way of thinking, since the mindset the Muslim child receives from his family is different from the one he finds at school. This difficulty is aggravated by the fact that, besides being culturally different, he belongs to a more disadvantaged level of society; that is, social distance is added to the cultural distance connected with the models of school society. Starting to school implies not only difficulty in communicating, but contact with an alien world in which he feels insecure and inept (low self esteem, inadequacy, etc.) This may also be applicable to the workplace (Herrera, Trujillo, Ramírez Fernández and Ramírez Salguero, 2001).

In the city the official language is Spanish; therefore, this is the language of administration, information, culture, the daily life of other communities, and of course, school. Dhariya, in relation to Spanish, is in what is called a diglossic situation. As a result, a high percentage of children who have learned to speak only Dhariya in their homes are immersed in a totally different language when they first go to school (Mesa 1989).

It was in this sociocultural framework that we carried out our work. As a hypothesis we have tried to show that the differences in maturity needed for learning among students with different native languages is related to the diglossic situation in which they find themselves, especially because of the need for mastery of elementary concepts in the dominant language.

We understand that the acquisition of basic concepts is essential for organizing/classifying experience, since it is a basic cognitive skill, without which it is all but impossible to manage the enormous complexity of the school experience. Concepts are related to perception, memory, reasoning and language (Gutiérrez, García and Carriedo, 2003).



1) Participants

Due to the characteristics of the study, a casual non-probability sampling was made. The sample size considered was 126 students drawn from three schools in the city of Ceuta, where they were taking classes in Christian cultures (in the Spanish vernacular) and Muslim cultures (in the Dhariya vernacular language). Regarding their culture of origin, 46.5% were of Muslim, and 53.5% were Christian. The gender distribution was as follows: 62.8% boys and 37.2% girls. As the school level, 45% were first graders and 55% were in the second grade.

2) Material

In this study we used the following tests:

a) Test for Language Disorders, and for Maturation for Scholastic Learning (ADL-MAE), (García Nieto and Yuste, 1985). Included were the following tests:

b) Test of Basic Concepts (TEC), (González Tamayo, 1992). Measures the knowledge the child has about abstract or relational concepts that appear in her textbooks or reading books, but which are not usually taught because these concepts are considered to be known already. This is not an intelligence test, but a test for knowledge of basic ideas necessary for reading comprehension or speech. The test items can be distributed in five areas: spatial, temporal, quantity, order and comparison. The concepts used were: forward, on the corner, near, a little, in the middle of, late, inside, not yet, on/above, soon, always, almost nobody, after, less, a longer while ago, at the same time, several, farther, in front of, the others, both, before, all, against, the same as, next to, following, none, sometimes, far from, each/every, more, between, still, earlier, almost, different, recently, facing, early, later than, equal, the middle of, the same number, some, while, ahead of, through, and not as many as.

c) Test of mental ability (THM), (Yuste, 1991). A figurative component test, which measures the general mental ability of the subjects. A high score may indicate a good capacity for logical-abstract reasoning, speed and agility in understanding relationships and discovering laws and principles; flexibility and speed in the understanding and management of abstract symbols; facility in performing the functions of abstraction, comprehension and deduction of relationship, and an aptitude for deducing new ideas based on the relationships found.

3) Procedures

The tests were applied during one week in each school, taking about an hour in each daily session. We tried to motivate the subjects taking the tests, and tried to help them avoid fatigue. The instructions were common to all, and took into account the principles of ethics in human research.

The statistical procedure was as follows:

a) Definition of variables: We have transformed the raw scores for each of the variables into standardized scores (into those that are normally distributed), assigning the following values. Typical scores of between -2.5 and -1.5 have been considered as indicating very low performance in the variable studied, and have been given a value of 1; between -1.5 and -0.5 have been considered as low value and given a value of 2; between - 0.5 to +0.5 have been considered as normal or average value and have been given the value 3; between +0.5 and +1.50 have been considered as high value, and are given the score (4); and finally, between +1.5 and +2.5 has been considered a very high value, and have been given the value (5).

When variables have not been distributed normally for the transformation we have calculated the percentiles 20, 40, 60 and 80. Between 0 and 20, very low; between 20 and 40, low; between 40 and 60, normal; between 60 and 80, high; and over 80, very high.

Two types of variables have been considered: those we call variables of performance, and those of language, grade and gender.

Those of performance are:

We have proceeded in the same way with these variables:

Other variables are:

b) Statistical treatment. Descriptive study of variables in which appear: mean, median, mode, standard deviation, skew, kurtosis and maximum and minimum value (see Table I).

Table I. Statistics descriptive of all the achievement variables of the sample

In the inferential analysis for seeing the relationship between the variables we used Mann-Whitney’s “U”, and to make the calculations we used the statistical program SPSS 12.0.



There are significant differences in the sample between subjects having a different language. These differences, in favor of those with Spanish as native language, we believe to be due to the better acquisition of the basic or elementary concepts on which are based the learning processes necessary not only for reading comprehension, but also for the implementation of effective speech and for learning in general. It is also possible that subjects who speak Dhariya have a minimal mastery of the official language used at school, in this case, Spanish; perhaps because the Dhariya and the Spanish were learned in different circumstances, and therefore, subjects do not have identical meanings for translation equivalencies in the two languages.

There are also significant differences in variables that affect students’ maturation for scholastic learning, such as visual-auditory memory, and language disorders. These are tests that clearly involve the language, and therefore Dhariya-language students may be at a disadvantage.

Gender appears as a highly significant variable. It is the girls who show higher scores in visual-motor coordination, perception of forms, reading discrimination, and mental ability. The boys scored higher only in visual-auditory memory (see Table II).

Table II. Relation between the variables achievement and language and gender



Spain’s current legislation manifests in its highest law, the Spanish Constitution (1978), and in its Article 14, recognizes the rights of all Spanish citizens before the law without discrimination on grounds of birth, race, sex or religion; and in its Article 27.1 and 2, the right of all to an education based on the democratic principles of coexistence that should permeate the educational process, and on the rights and fundamental freedoms essential to the full development of the human personality, which is the object assigned to education. In the same article, the Law makes the public authorities responsible for its implementation (Art. 27.5).

Also in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1989), in its Article 28.1 it ensures equal opportunities in education, and in its Article 30 it establishes the right of children of minorities to enjoy their own culture and use their own language.

In the first year of primary school, the child is focused on learning to read and write, which, although not the only contents of his scholastic learning, are indeed the most important. In the area of language these are asked of the child: reading comprehension, oral expression, narration and dialogue with an increasingly rich vocabulary, writing correctly according to some rules. In the area of numbers, he must perform certain logical operations with sets, master mental operations of addition and subtraction with whole numbers. In the area of experience, he should recognize his own body image, orientation in space and time, and have knowledge about nature and the society in which he is immersed. In the area of the arts, he is asked to express his artistry through a series of expression techniques, to help him improve his graphic design, his eye-hand coordination, his concept of form, his sense of rhythm and auditory perception. In the area of physical education, he is asked to make sensory-perception distinctions, assimilation of body schema, correct lateralization, sense of rhythm in movement and dance.

These contents taught in the first year primary education require for their proper assimilation, maturation levels in basic areas of aptitude, previously mentioned, among which are conspicuous the basic concepts which may be determining the achievement of these objectives. It was seen previously that the most significant differences appear in the acquisition of basic concepts, in visual-auditory memory and in language disorders. It is a fact evident in Ceuta’s reality (more often than we would wish), that the academic performance of Dhariya-language children does not reach the desired level. Possibly the causes are multiple and more complex (socioeconomic status, educational level, religious faith, etc.), and these causes cannot be reduced presenting a few explanatory variables, as we have tried to do in our study.

According to data from Andalucia’s Ministry of Education and Science (2001), the dropout rate among the Ceuta school population is not much different from what usually exists among students of the same age in other Spanish cities. Perhaps this would help us to understand that the causes of dropout should be sought not only in the cultural/religious or linguistic tradition, but in other social circumstances such as social exclusion, unemployment, economic hardship, population displacement, deficiency in family leadership, discrepancy between the values of the home and the school environment, etc. However, we think that among the students in Ceuta, this diglossic situation may be important for explaining the differences.

As to how to solve the language problem, many solutions have been put forth. Two in particular are outstanding: 1) those that propose the use of the vernacular for classroom teaching (in our case teaching in the two languages); and 2) those that assert that teaching must be in Spanish only.

Learning to read in their mother tongue or first language (native language) improves children’s scholastic achievement, as compared with that of children who have to learn to read in a second language. More than 40 years ago at a UNESCO conference, experts expressed their unequivocal support for the use of the mother tongue for teaching programs in the vernacular in a now-classic statement: “We take it as axiomatic…that the best medium for teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil” (UNESCO, 1953, p. 8). Many specialists in language and education seem to consider this point resolved.

Researchers have collected multiple tests in support of the theory that learning to read in their mother tongue or first language improves student performance, in comparison with that of children who have to learn in a second language. Evidence obtained mainly in Europe and America has been used to support early-education programs in the mother tongue in many developing countries. However, recent studies, including that presented here, present a more complex picture.

Between 1987 and 1988 there was carried out a five-year longitudinal study on the learning of reading and writing by children in a village in Morocco (International Literacy Institute, 1997). The children in the sample came from two distinct linguistic communities (Moroccan Arabic and Berber), but they lived in the same town, attended the same school, and were literate first in Arabic and then in French. The analysis showed that although there were significant differences in the results related to reading in Arabic (first literacy), among the groups of Berber and Arabic-speaking first graders, these differences virtually disappeared after five years of schooling. It was concluded that the Koranic preschool, taught in Arabic, was an important factor influencing performance. Learning to read in French (second literacy) had nothing to do with the Berber or Arabic medium of linguistic origin, but was closely linked to reading performance in Arabic.

Generally speaking, this research reinforces the idea that children in certain social and linguistic contexts need not learn in the mother tongue in order to meet the literacy standards of the majority language group. It is necessary to investigate further the learning of children and adults in different ethno-linguistic contexts, before drawing broad conclusions about what is best for optimum scholastic achievement.

Our position approaches the second view, and we share the opinion of Bullejos (2002) that the disadvantages of having Ceuta’s Arabic speakers study in their mother tongue are these:

The Spanish language in Ceuta is the most important factor for cultural integration and for enabling those of the different cultural traditions to get along together in the city; however, the shortcomings of this coexistence are precisely another of the aspects being complained about by the very ones who suggest that the studies be given in Arabic.

Encouraging students to express themselves in their native language in class would serve to allow them to express some conceptualizations better, but would undermine the learning of Castilian, and thus, of the most important aspect of the much-desired total cultural integration. It seems inappropriate to restrict in this manner the future careers of young Spaniards, speakers of Dhariya and citizens of Ceuta, since as European citizens, poor understanding and poor use of the Spanish language would diminish their chances for employment.

The use of Dhariya in the classroom would go against cultural integration and coexistence, since it would separate Arabic-speaking and Spanish-speaking classrooms. What is appropriate is to promote the use of Spanish in class.

Almost the entire Ceuta school population of Maghribian (North African) origin are Spanish citizens. Regardless of their having a different religion or language, the language in which we Spaniards can understand each other is Castilian.

There have been some experiments with teaching in vernacular languages in the U.S., but the results have not been entirely what was expected. For that reason, it has been necessary to return to teaching in the country’s mother tongue.

However, we understand that the designation of Spanish as the official language of the people of Spain, does not imply that we should neglect the needs of these children in whose areas of origin another language is spoken. To intervene in this situation, the education system is contemplating some measures. Some institutions in Ceuta have been shouting out the need to apply a comprehensive, compensational education plan, with adequate resources and personnel. Moreover, we must not forget the measures for adaptation and diversification of the curriculum under the General Education Law (LOGSE), which should be applied in schools. There is a need to find a way to adapt the curriculum so that today’s disadvantage may disappear, and may become an element of cultural enrichment.



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Translator: Lessie Evona York-Weatherman
UABC Mexicali

Please cite the source as:

Roa, J. M. (2006). Scholastic achievement and the diglossic situation in a sample of primary-school students in Ceuta. Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa, 8 (1). Retrieved month day, year, from: